By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — When frustrated professionals waiting for their long-delayed licenses reach out to Gov. Tony Evers’ office for help, they get an automatic email — a political screed blaming the Republican-controlled Legislature for Wisconsin’s licensing crisis.
Instead of stepping in and helping, Evers offers victims of his dysfunctional Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) “some contextual information that will explain the current licensing backlog and the steps that our administration is taking to address it.”
The backlog has left untold numbers of health care workers, electricians, cosmetologists, you name it, waiting months, some more than a year, for their credentials.
“Since its creation in 2011, DSPS has been understaffed, underfunded, and under resourced, which has set the stage for the situation the agency finds itself in today. In short, DSPS is staffed at a dire level,” the email from Evers claims. It makes a lot of claims in a purely political, CYA message, including the charge that the “State Legislature has decided to take no action to resolve this situation…”
The Legislature, in fact, set aside $5 million in the current budget, signed by Evers in July 2021, for technological upgrades. DSPS officials, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, just recently requested that money — a year later. Agency officials last week told the Legislature’s Study Committee on Occupational Licensing that they were going to use the additional $5 million to finish upgrading its system. They did not say why they waited so long to claim the funds.
Evers’ office claims DSPS is “actively pursuing alternative means to address” the massive backlog. The problem has been ongoing for at least a year and a half.
Evers waited until the beginning of this year to mark $6 million to move the agency from paper to electronic files. DSPS waited until this spring to begin its transition to the electronic filing system — just as a wave of new professionals was graduating. Instead of filling critical healthcare jobs and other positions in a severe workforce shortage, these professionals were made to wait while DSPS announced a license application processing “blackout” between April 29 and May 15.
Sources tell Empower Wisconsin that less than a third of Wisconsin’s respiratory therapist graduates this year had received their licenses. That’s inexcusable in a pandemic caused by an upper respiratory disease, when so many healthcare providers are struggling to fill positions. A review of online job site Indeed.com showed 392 respiratory therapist job postings in Wisconsin as of Monday.
State Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), who co-chairs a joint committee investigating the licensing crisis, has said the dysfunction at DSPS begins with Wisconsin’s “absentee governor.”
After mounting complaints, Evers accepted the resignation last month of Dawn Crim, the incompetent secretary-designee of the Department of Safety and Professional Services. As Empower Wisconsin reported, emails show Evers had very little contact with Crim during the run of the licensing crisis. Crim, according to the emails, was more concerned about Evers’ woke “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives than helping Wisconsinites get the licenses they need to gain employment or stay employed.
“Governor Evers and the Evers Administration are dedicated to helping qualified applicants quickly and easily enter the workforce, which is why the administration has been working diligently to add positions to DSPS since the governor took office,” Evers’ email insists.
If the administration was so dedicated to the cause, why didn’t Evers use a portion of the billions of dollars in federal COVID relief — he alone has controlled — sooner to deal with the DSPS mess? Sortwell says the failure is two-fold: This administration isn’t up to the task and there is dire need for licensure reform.
State Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) asked why Evers didn’t quickly move other state government employees to DSPS to deal with the backlog, or why the agency’s Madison office has reduced its hours open to the public. Felzkowski chairs the Senate Insurance, Licensing and Forestry Committee, which is expected to hold a public hearing on DSPS in the coming weeks. She said there has been no urgency in the administration to meet the state’s myriad crises over the past two-plus years.
“All you have to do is go to downtown Madison and you’ll see these agencies are empty,” Felzkowski said. “Why aren’t these people in their offices? Why isn’t there mandatory overtime? How can people go home at 12:30 p.m.?”